With a steady focus on quality and efficiency, Preston Feather Building Centers has been working for more than a century to provide specialty materials for custom houses in northern Michigan.
Since 1915, Preston Feather has been family owned and operated, although the business has changed hands a few times. Founded by Preston Arthur Feather in Petoskey, MI, the business flourished in its early years, surviving even through World War II when the company was forced to move downtown to make way for military production.
After more than 60 years of ownership under the Feather family, the business was sold to Bill and Julie Norcross in 1979, who grew the business and oversaw the addition of the company’s Harbor Springs, Gaylord and Traverse City locations. Seeking to retire, Bill asked his friend, customer and advisor Kirk Jabara to purchase the business. In the company’s 100th year of operation, Kirk and Lynne Jabara bought Preston Feather in 2015.
After taking ownership, the Jabara family strategically invested towards future growth. “At the time, it required investment in virtually all areas,” Kirk said. They built a new, 13,000-sq. ft. building center and showroom in the fast-growing Traverse City market. They accelerated growth of the company by investing in people, leaner processes and a more flexible fleet as well as the company’s first fully integrated ERP systems and other software. The Preston Feather brand and marketing was also freshened up to emphasize the company’s niche in serving custom homebuilders in Michigan’s waterfront resort region.
A year into those initial projects and investments, Jabara’s daughter, Rachel Huntman, decided to join the business as Director of Operations in 2016. She previously had a career in public accounting, leading audit and advisory engagements for manufacturing, engineering, and construction clients. The opportunity to be part of the family business and impact the northern Michigan community that she grew up in motivated her to make the move. Her initial responsibility was to lead the major systems overhaul.
After years of working with her father, Rachel purchased the majority of the business in 2021. That year Huntman’s husband, Jake, also joined the family business. With a background in leadership which started with his service in the U.S. Navy, Jake now plays a key role helping lead Preston Feather’s sales initiatives, training sales team members and improving the customer experience. Being a family business based on meaningful core values is crucial to the Jabara and Huntman families, although they joke that they consider Preston Feather a 108-year-old start up company. Huntman said one key strategy during these transitions has been maintaining longstanding relationships with builders while empowering her team to always be looking for ways to improve.
“When I first started, the phrase, ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,’ was used on a daily basis,” she said. “Now, it’s really, ‘we can make that better.’ It’s fun to see the continuous improvement culture grab hold. We want to innovate, we want to be the best, our team is competing against ourselves to see what we’re truly capable of.”
Shorter build cycles
One of the best examples of how Preston Feather is innovating, under Huntman’s leadership—and a key reason for the company’s selection as an LBM Journal Dealer of the Year—is collaborating with builders to deliver smoother builds.
“By working closely with our builder customers throughout the planning phase and communicating throughout the build cycle, we’re better able to manage variables like supply chain issues and labor shortages,” she explains.
In fact, Huntman and custom builder Jon Newbury took the stage at LBM Strategies Conference 2023 to share the details of how they collaborated to build a 10,000-sq. ft. custom home and 3,500-sq. ft. carriage house, gaining occupancy in just 10 months despite winter weather and association moratorium constraints. “Shortening build cycles—effectively helping our builders complete more homes in less time—is a key growth strategy.” [To watch their presentation, visit bit.ly/LBMJxPrestonFeather.]
Onboarding and company culture
Jabara and Huntman said they hope to honor the memory of Bill Norcross, who passed away last year, by carrying on Preston Feather’s legacy. “We talk a lot about legacy—Bill’s legacy, our legacy, Preston Feather as a whole—it’s an important piece of our culture,” Huntman said.
Huntman mentioned one priority has been creating a great culture for its 120-plus person team. The team has a common goal: working towards providing the best customer experience. To that end, the company helps train all team members to communicate, listen and understand customer expectations. New employees will find themselves quickly immersed in all parts of the company, Huntman said.
“We have each new team member shadow various roles, so they understand the customer experience from start to finish. They shadow our sales team, go on a ride along on deliveries, understand the collections process. It’s really important each member of the team sees the full picture.”
In 2023, the business continued to grow to approximately $80 million in revenue—more than twice 2018 revenue—which Huntman attributes to Preston Feather’s team and investment focus.
“[Our team is] the reason why we do this, that’s fundamentally why our family is in this business. We want to make our teams’ lives better, which in turn positively impacts our communities,” she said. “Making everyone feel like they can take ownership and feel empowered here is really important to me, and it’s important to our leadership team.”
Carving out a niche
The business is more than 80% pro-oriented, and their brand centers around understanding and contributing to the success of their builder customer’s business as if it were their own. Huntman said they’ve invested heavily in their showrooms, also called “decision centers” at each of Preston Feather’s locations.
“We know that we work best when we’re partnered with a builder at the very start of the project concept,” she said.
Because of the quality and creativity demanded of custom home building, Preston Feather’s approach has been to stock premium grade lumber and source special orders through a network of high-quality suppliers of specialty products. Core product lines include materials for foundations, framing and framing components, roofing, windows, doors, decking, trim, cabinetry and tops. Some of their key brands include Marvin Windows, Azek and Timbertech Decking, LP SmartSide, Woodharbor Cabinetry, Zip Panel Systems, and Nudura Insulated Concrete Forms. The company relies on vendors to meet Preston Feather’s culture and customer experience standards. Ultimately, they recognize the Preston Feather brand is the one being represented to the end users of the product.
Huntman said their sales team provides value to their builder customers by identifying which materials will best fit the application and needs of the project. “Fifty percent of our business is special order, so that means we have to source the right product for the right application and get it to the jobsite at the right time and the right place.”
Many of the projects supplied by Preston Feather are located on lakefronts, bluffs or islands that are difficult to access. The company has had to develop a customized approach to product handling and logistics. They have a specialized fleet and experienced team capable of adapting to logistical challenges. For instance, that approach has come in handy when delivering to sites located on Mackinac Island, located off the coast of northern Michigan. Local ordinance prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, and harsh winter conditions can mean getting creative to get jobs done.
“Everything is horse-drawn on the Island,” Huntman said. “We facilitate getting products to barges to bring it over and typically horses take it from there. We’ve actually had a helicopter deliver trusses in the past. In the winter, there’s an ice bridge that forms and you can get over that way, but it is challenging.”
“The supply chain management challenge for us is about how to get customers tailored products that are designed and made-to-order. We work further upstream with architects, and we work all the way through with builders and homeowners, and we do it in northern Michigan where the conditions aren’t always the best,” Jabara said.
In the future, Huntman said the company plans to continue to grow. In the short term, it’s focused on the Traverse City market and will be doubling the location’s distribution capacity. Preston Feather has a variety of growth opportunities; however, she said what’s most important is that the company continues to build on the strong foundation.
“We’ve done a lot to date to set ourselves up for growth in the future,” she said. “It is important we have that foundational culture and build our team in a way that as we keep growing, we’ll be able to sustain our culture and stay true to ourselves, specifically our commitments to our team members and customers. Growing intentionally without losing sight of our legacy is important to us.”